Back in the office, ever since Mark had listened to an hour’s worth of details about my blow up with the coworkers a year ago, and after the dust had settled, he had started calling me to his office just to shoot the breeze. He did not seem to mind that I had started my position with him in a drama-filled explosion. I was flattered by his attention. I loved it. And so I tried to be cool, but sometimes the new awareness I was developing in therapy popped out unexpectedly.
One day as we sat in his office I told Mark, “Every time you talk to the company president your face gets beet red and that vein in your head bulges. You go down to his office and get hollered at and then you come back here and yell at all of us.” I was as surprised as he was at my candor, and I could tell by the embarassed look on his face that I shouldn’t have said it.
I felt horrible. I was an idiot to talk to my boss that way. It’s just that I was excited about all the attention I had been getting from him, and feeling free about sharing my honest feelings on a weekly basis with Alice. If I didn’t watch out I was going to ruin it all.
I ended up blurting out, “You know what? I’m really mad at someone else, and maybe I’m taking it out on you.”
That’s when he did something unexpected. Something that started the whole thing. Something that if I could take it back even now, I would not. Because he is the one who took that first step and offered to be the person to teach me what I had no idea I needed to know. Right there in his office at work with the door closed, Mark stood up took my hand and said, “Come here. This is what you need.” He pulled me up on my feet and then he put his arms around me in a big hug. His gesture seemed corny, but unexpectedly tears sprang to my eyes and I choked back sobs that popped up out of nowhere.
I hurried to wipe my eyes so Mark wouldn’t know. We were just standing there with his arms around me and he did not seem to mind at all. But I needed an explanation. Some excuse why I was suddenly acting this way. So I quoted Alice saying, “Mark, I’m really being walked on in my life, and every time I don’t say anything about it I give that person permission to do it again. I don’t know how to stop it.” That’s when he asked me if I wanted to go out to lunch. I loved the idea but it seemed wildly self-indulgent. Wasn’t it enough, I wondered, that I had gotten all this attention already? Besides, I always seemed to say things to Mark that ended up upsetting me.
So I said no. He suggested I take the day off, but I didn’t want to do that either. Instead I went back to my cubicle, opened a notebook, and pretended I had not just had an unexplained breakdown in the boss’s office. Even though I worried about it, it seemed the whole thing was alright because even though I hid in my office the rest of the day, he came by and checked on me before I went home.
When I told Alice about it later she said it sounded fine to her.
Not only was it fine, soon afterwards Mark included me among the select few from the clinical cardiovascular group invited to represent the company at the upcoming week-long American Heart Association Meeting in Dallas. The most prominent clinicians, the most revered names in cardiology would stand before thousands of scientists at this internationally attended meeting and announce the latest diagnostic tools and treatments for the number one killer in America, heart disease. Not that I cared so much about heart disease, but I knew I was supposed to, and I was flattered to be chosen.
I booked my flight and flew to Dallas.
Once there though, I had a hard time staying focused. Issues from sessions with Alice swirled around in my head. Here at this professional conference I was experiencing a whole new way of seeing the world. I quizzed my out-of-town contacts about their business relationships and listened with a keen ear if anyone should mention any aspect of their personal relationships. One of my research nurses headed off to call her sister just before breakfast one morning, and when she came back I asked what it was about. The sister was going to be coming into town coincidentally and the two would meet for dinner. Proof, I concluded, of what a typical relationship with a sister was supposed to be like. It obviously didn’t include sisters who ran off to far away places and took whole bottles of aspirin, or who slammed phones down when arrangements to watch the kids got difficult. Instead of learning the science of cardiovascular disease my mind wanted to watch the people at this meeting for clues about all of my new insights.
When the moderator of the meeting introduced the keynote speaker, Dr. Arthur Studibaker, we watched a magnified projection of the two men shaking hands. Dr. Studibaker positioned himself at the lectern to begin. But before he could start, the moderator took it upon himself to straighten Dr. Studibaker’s bowtie which was askew. This caused the crowd to chuckle. The bowtie refused to be rearranged and the moderator fumbled to straighten it. More laughs. But for me, the two men standing side by side in front of hundreds of serious-minded medical professionals, even though they weren’t at all related, looked like a scene of a proud father tending to his accomplished son. I got choked up considering it.
In fact, thinking about how kind fathers might be if they wanted to, caused me to burst out crying where I sat by myself in the middle of the crowded auditorium. Alice had warned me that the emotional pendulum would swing far to each side before it settled in the middle, but mine had gone off the chart. I connected personally with everything I saw in Dallas that week, and I acted out my emotions unabashedly.
Days later, and in no better frame of mind, I was returning from a walk outside still in the convention complex where I’d gone to find some trees or grass or some kind or earth to be near, when I saw Mark heading towards me. He stopped and insisted we go to a park just across the green. I had no sense of myself or the pain I was in then, but it’s pretty obvious now that that is why he steered me off to the side of the crowds. If I’d been in Arden I’d have heard a loud clattering of breezes high in the treetops in these moments, informing me that a storm was gathering.
Alone again with Mark sounded great. In a Pavlovian kind of way, a rush of sadness that had been barely hiding, blew over me. And for a change I actually felt and recognized it. With a waver in my voice I asked, “Mark, can you handle me right now?”
I leaned into him and felt his shoulder under my face.
“Mark, is this really okay?”
“Yeah. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”
He wrapped his arms around me gently, holding me.
“Are you sure?”
Over his shoulder I saw people coming toward us on their way to the next symposium, and I worried about what we might look like. But tears were already springing from my eyes.
“Yes, I’m sure.”
“What about all these people? What will they think?”
“They’ll think that you’re upset about something and that I’m holding you and that they have to get to their next meeting.”
That’s when whatever little guard I had left fell away. I let it happen. I hung on. I stopped thinking. Mark was being a rock just when I needed it. For the first time all week it felt as if I was on solid ground. I felt free to forget where I was, just as if it was Alice’s. Only it wasn’t. It was broad daylight not a private office. But Mark didn’t mind at all. In fact, somehow all of this seemed to make sense to him. When I finally stopped crying he kissed my forehead and petted my hair.
“Are you alright?”
“Why don’t you join us for dinner tonight? Some of us are going to a Thai place downtown. You and I can go for a drink afterwards.”
I was delighted. He was offering to spend more time alone with me and I loved it. If he thought it was okay to go for a drink after dinner, then it was okay by me. Everything with Mark was easy. And so just as he’d said, after dinner back at the hotel while the others went up to their rooms, Mark and I headed for the bar. After we’d gotten our drinks and settled in I asked the question that had been on my mind ever since our encounter in the park.
“Mark, was that okay this afternoon?”
“Jane, it’s like I said, you have to do what you have to do.”
“Could you tell I was sad? You know, that I cried? Did it seem like I was sad to you?” Unbelievably I needed validation that my feelings were real.
I was asking the same questions I’d repeatedly asked of Alice and now I was hoping Mark would see them the same way. Sometimes I regarded myself as invisible. Sometimes it seemed that people could not see when I was sad, even when I cried. I bowed my head toward my tonic and gin, embarrassed at the personal topic, and swirled the ice vigorously with the red plastic stirrer. During the silence that followed I glanced up. He was looking right at me and had a surprised look on his face.
“Jane, that wasn’t crying. That was sobbing.”
This was a shock, but I liked it because it meant he had noticed my breakdown. That he wasn’t pretending it didn’t happen. And here he was coincidentally using the word Alice and I had gone around and around about. Here was a chance, at last, to see what someone else thought about this taboo subject. So I asked.
“What do you mean? What’s the difference?”
“Sobbing means there’s something deep down that is really wrong,” he told me. “It means it’s something really serious.”
“Oh? How do you know that?”
“I can tell. I’ve seen this kind of thing before.” He said that when his father died, he went into a depression. “I can see now that I was probably what would be considered clinically depressed, but I didn’t know it then. And that’s how I felt all the time. Like sobbing.”
I just listened while he went on being unbelievably understanding.
“Later I saw the same thing happening to a friend of mine. I could see what was going on and recommended he get help, which he did. You should think about that.”
I said nothing. Nothing about the fact that I did feel like sobbing all the time, and that I had been seeing a therapist for a whole year, and that this is where it had brought me so far: to being a bit desperate for the attention of my boss, the guy in my life who most remninded me of my mean father. Tears streamed down my cheeks at the thought of it. Mark watched and talked quietly about life being hard and how you just had to face up to it at times.
“Maybe we’d better go upstairs,” he said. Mark waved at the waiter and then ushered me out to the elevator. We stepped in and he punched the button to his floor. I was hanging on his arm when we arrived at his door.
Inside we stood embracing in the sitting area of his suite. Oddly it made me sad that Mark was so understanding and kind, and then realizing that fact felt pathetic. I was still crying. And even harder now. This was my boss, for Pete’s sake, and I had been trying to keep professional even after the scene in his office. But he was being so nice. And I was so drawn to him. Around Mark, especially here out of town and away from Michael, he seemed the anchor my husband usually was for me.
Standing next to the couch I hung on to him and pressed myself against him while I tried to calm down. I just couldn’t get close enough to this man. In fact, I kicked off my high heels and stood on his feet. He didn’t mind at all. We were so close our legs were touching each others’ front to front and I could feel both of our hip bones between us. He said nothing while standing there, hugging me gently. I tried to tell him what was wrong but everything I said came out incoherently, and I knew I couldn’t explain any of it anyway. My whole desperate state was dreadful but I definitely wanted to stay in the arms of this comforting man, because so far, nothing fazed him.
After a while he suggested we sit on the couch. He sat down first then patted his lap in invitation for me to sit there. I did and put my arms around his neck, my head on his shoulder. Despite the fact that we were in a hotel room far from home, an adulterous tryst was the farthest thing from my mind. It was midnight. We should have been exhausted, but we talked for two more hours. When I look at it now I see that our actions were reminiscent of exchanges I’d had with Michael where I behaved as if I was a child, and he responded as if he was my mother. Now Mark was being the good parent. Or maybe, the good foster parent.
What I would have given for my father to act so lovingly towards me.
Mark and I talked about my parents, and then about how parents in general love their children. He told me he loved his wife. He told stories about how much he loved his children. He said he’d been worried just before his second child was born because he wondered how he could find room in his heart to love another, considering how much he loved his first. But afterwards he’d learned that he had more than enough love for both. And then even enough for a third. He told me that he now understood that people have an infinite capacity for love.
Everything he told me made me cry, either because it was so sweet and poignant and personal, or because it reminded me that I didn’t have anything nearly as meaningful going on in my own family. I was confident in Michael’s love for me, but I took it for granted, thinking only of what I did not have with my parents. “Mark, why are you telling me all this, and why are you spending all this time with me?”
His answer was entirely unexpected.
“Well, because I love you. I love you and I’m willing to help you get through whatever it is you’re going through.”
Hearing such words was unbelievable. I could tell by the way he said it, and by the way he’d behaved all evening, that he did not mean romantic love. He meant he loved “me,” -- my spirit, or my intentions, or something else that was only me. Me being me.
And with that I covered my face and started to wail. The thought that my boss, who might rather have been out with the big shots from the company, or better, just getting well deserved rest, was spending the late night hours listening to me moan, and then even saying he loved me despite my acting like a baby, was too much.
When I finally settled down and looked up at him through bleary eyes, he said with a bemused smile, “Well, I have to say, I’ve never gotten that reaction before.”
Even though I worked for him, Mark was a willing participant, a complicit partner in my trick on myself, which was probably why Alice condoned it. She knew better than I that an emotional relationship just like the one I had with her, could have the potential to be powerful, and that I did not have to realize what I was doing for it to be an important agent of change. She could see that it was beneficial and concluded that Mark was apparently satisfied with his role in it.
Back at the office I was sure Mark himself would think better of our episode in Dallas. Fearful of repercussions, I asked if I could take him out to lunch to talk, specifically to explain and I thought to promise, I’d never expect him to sit up with me while I cried all night again. But as it turned out Mark apparently had something else on his mind.
In our office people frequently took off in the middle of the day because we all traveled, and discretionary time was allowed to compensate for long hours away from home. So it was not unusual for Mark and me to head out for an early lunch that day and we ended up at a Chinese place near the office. I was so self-conscious about our encounter in Dallas that I barely noticed that Mark was actually choked up as he sat across from me, and clearly wanted to talk about something completely different.
“I didn’t accept my father’s illness very well. It was terminal. I couldn’t face it.”
“What do you mean?” I was taken by surprise hearing Mark bring up this topic, but I could tell he trusted me and I liked it.
“I stopped talking to him…completely stopped talking to him. I wouldn’t go into his room and I wouldn’t see him. For the last few months of his life I completely ignored him.”
“Really?” I was taken aback that Mark would be so callous, but I was flattered, too, that he wanted to tell me something so personal, I tried to listen thoughtfully as he talked.
“When he died I hadn’t even said goodbye.” Mark was obviously ashamed to admit this, and I felt sorry for him. I tried to be the good friend by listening quietly, but I was getting itchy about what was on my mind.
He continued, “That’s why I wear this.” He wistfully pointed to the watch I’d often seen on his wrist. “My father gave it to me and I wear it all the time. Once I jumped into the ocean with it on, and I thought it would never work again.” Now Mark started to cry. “Someone told me to drop the watch into a glass of oil to displace the water, and I was able to get it repaired.”
I could tell this wasn’t something Mark frequently admitted to.
“But that was then and this is now,” he concluded, composing himself.
Our lunch had not turned out as I’d expected.
Mark had problems too, but my own wouldn’t go away. I was too embarrassed about my behavior in Dallas to let another minute go by without bringing it up. Ending our conversation about his father, I passed a note I’d written earlier across the table.
I suffered physical isolation on top of severe emotional isolation for years. I am struggling to come to grips with that. I really appreciate how kind you’ve been to me. Thanks.
Mark read the note and said, “I knew something terrible happened to you. I figured whatever it was led to the crisis you’re in right now.”
Our lunch ended and we walked to the parking lot. “Mark, I haven’t mentioned it yet, but I am seeing a therapist to help me figure it all out.”
“That sounds like a good idea. I’m glad you’re doing that.”
Overall I was thrilled with the outcome to our lunch because now I felt almost on equal footing with Mark.
Maybe it was okay that I had had several breakdowns. Mark had had one too.
From then on I knew Mark would welcome me into his office any time I wanted. On days that I wasn’t traveling I started calling him or peeking in his doorway asking if it was alright to come in. He almost always made time for me and shut the door if I asked for a hug. He seemed to like being on call. We’d stand for a long moment embraced, and sometimes I’d break down crying with no explanation, even sobbing loudly at times. Being with Mark was like being with Alice because I was honest about how I felt in that moment.
Others must have noticed my frequent visits to his office, and the return to my desk with blotchy face and teary eyes, but it was not difficult for me to do my job despite all this. I was able to monitor the study progress at my seven medical sites, including gathering patient data and regulatory documents for each, prepare adverse event reports, site visit reports, telephone logs and budgetary reviews. I had a good rapport with my research nurses and the clinical people I had to deal with, and the pool of technical assistants and secretaries I used in the office reportedly enjoyed working with me. Even in the face of my breakdown I successfully kept my assignments up to date. I’d had a lifetime of exprience hiding my true feelings when I wanted to.
But during this time I found myself painfully preoccupied with Mark. I knew where he was at every moment. Sometimes he’d come around my area of the office announcing that he was going to lunch in the cafeteria. I took it as an indirect invitation and joined his group. And other times I asked him out for lunch alone, and he went. Sometimes we rode around in the car talking while eating bag lunches, or we’d go down to the river and sit on the banks while staring at the Hudson.
I was cautious not to tell Mark specifics about my problems unless it had to do with work. Arden and all my little lifelong problems seemed too complicated to explain. And they never seemed as bad when I said them out loud anyway. I saved all that for Alice. But I did complain about my parents, a lot, in sweeping generalizations.
Still I worried that I was telling him too much, and that I was becoming a burden to him. I worried that Mark only talked to me because I was so desperate. And I worried, that in general, what I was doing was unprofessional because, really, anyone knows you shouldn’t be in the arms of the boss behind closed doors on a regular basis.
I can only marvel now at my ability to recognize and grant myself exactly what I needed at the time, despite the fact that I didn’t understand what was happening. Sometimes Mark asked me about psychotherapy and how it worked, but I had no awareness of how it worked or that it was working at all, or that I was doing it with him, so I explained the mechanics of my sessions with Alice instead. It didn’t matter to me anyway. She had said it was important for me to ignore the process and to work on trusting myself and other people. She assured me Mark’s behavior was kind and well-intentioned, and she emphasized that my job was to accept it.
Michael didn’t mind either. When I wasn’t eating lunch with Mark I was eating lunch with him. He knew what I was doing with Mark because I told him clearly what I was doing. And really, considering how difficult I could be at home, he welcomed any steadying force. Since at work Michael was located in a different building altogether, and didn’t package cardiovascular studies, he and Mark rarely saw one another. But occasionally Michael met with clinical personnel to discuss packaging issues and Mark had a reputation for being professional and smart. Michael trusted Mark, and Alice. As long as I was happy, Michael was happy too.
These few people whom I dared to trust tacitly agreed that it was okay to continue what I was doing, for now.